The Principle of Resilience

Climate change is a game changer with respect to the resilience of ecological and human systems. Among the many threats and stressors of global warming, islands and coastal areas will be impacted by increased rainfall, more frequent and powerful storms and storm surges which, when combined with sea level rise, will mean greater storm damage and flooding with risks of destructive impacts on ecosystems, soil and groundwater, and human settlements. Among the recent bad news on the climate, a study published in Nature indicates that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is occurring faster than expected and could significantly accelerate the rate of sea level rise, and new detailed NASA maps show that a group of glaciers spanning one-eighth of East Antarctica’s coast have begun to lose ice over the past decade. Climate change will affect different regions differently, and for some regions, there will be greater risks of drought, impacting ecosystems, agriculture and food security. While the Paris Agreement/UNFCCC processes continue to flounder forward, it is critically important to pursue efforts to limit the increase in global average temperature as much as possible (1.5°C above pre-industrial levels) in order to reduce risks and impacts, stabilize the climate system and avoid Hothouse Earth pathways, and provide more time and greater opportunities for the adaptation of ecological and human systems.

It should now be clear that building resilience will need to be among the top priorities of the governance frameworks of human settlements and their interactions with the natural environment. The UN development system, particularly the new Resident Coordinator system, UNDP and its new Resident Representatives, UNEP and UN-Habitat, the UN Regional Commissions and other institutions, have a deep responsibility to support country-led resilience building in developing countries, particularly countries in special situations such as the small island developing States (SIDS) and the least developed countries (LDCs). Cities such as New York, London and Tokyo are already planning and taking action to build up their resilience to climate change impacts (storms, sea level rise and flooding), yet these are some of the (financially) richest places on Earth with some of the most expensive real estate, and the question must be asked: what will happen to the millions of people who live in vulnerable cities and human settlements that lack financial and technical resources … will they be left behind? Indeed, resilience is an ethical principle that implicitly recognizes that the situation of poverty imposes vulnerabilities, and removing these vulnerabilities must encompass the overarching goal of the eradication of poverty in all of its forms and dimensions. Vulnerability is not an inherent characteristic of any human population, but is determined by historical, social, structural and systemic inequities and conditions. As such, the principle of resilience is intertwined with notions of justice — social justice, climate justice, environmental justice, spatial justice, as well as intergenerational equity.

In building climate resilience, policymakers should consider a broad range of options customized to specific national and local realities, including “climate proofing” infrastructure, community-based disaster risk management, multi-country insurance-related risk pooling, new ideas in urban design, including geodesign, ecosystem-based adaptation and nature-based solutions, devoting much more of the Earth (land and water) to Nature (i.e., conservation/protection), and other common sense solutions. Such solutions should integrate traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples, and local knowledge systems, where and as appropriate. In some contexts and circumstances, retreat, relocation and migration may be options to consider. The meaningful participation of authentic civil society, meaning regional, national and local stakeholders (people who actually have a “stake” in what’s happening in their communities, countries and regions) is critical and should be strongly supported, including through regional mechanisms that facilitate their participation at the international level, as opposed to the UN’s inverted “stakeholderism” as reflected in globalized, geographically-decontextualized “engagement” or “coordination” mechanisms and other structures largely dominated, directly and indirectly (through networked layers), by the global North, without any dedicated autonomous spaces for the regions of the global South.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), mentions “resilient” or “resilience” 16 unique times (18 in total), including references to resilient agricultural practices, resilient infrastructure, resilient communities, resilience as related to disaster risk reduction, resilience to climate change impacts, and ecosystems resilience. While there exists a diversity of definitions of resilience, a good working definition can be found in the IPCC glossary (2014, Annex II): “The capacity of social, economic and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding to or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning and transformation.” Indeed, the scope of this short essay is not sufficient to capture the full picture of resilience, including resilience in such areas as agriculture and food security, water resources, biodiversity, and the health of ocean and marine environments.

Despite this critical need to build resilience, insufficient attention has been accorded to resilience as a legal principle for the governance of human societies and their interactions with the Earth’s ecosystem. Indeed, our governance frameworks, the norms and rules that govern human communities, must evolve and respond to real-world and real-life conditions. The principle of resilience is implicitly embedded within the Rio Principles (the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development) as well as the ecosystem approach. The ecosystem approach is based on “the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organization which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment” and “recognizes that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems.” ( Thus, the “environment” is not something “out there” but human beings are an indivisible part of the environment, and the principle of resilience encompasses human resilience as well, as reflected in health, well-being, ways of life, culture, spirituality and identity.

The IUCN’s draft International Covenant on Environment and Development includes a provision on resilience: “The capacity of natural systems and human communities to withstand and recover from environmental disturbances and stresses is limited, and therefore resilience is to be promoted. When such disturbances and stresses occur, efforts shall be taken to sustain or restore the systems and communities as fully as possible.”

The Draft Global Pact for the Environment, an “umbrella” text of key environmental law principles, contains a provision on resilience which states: “The parties shall take necessary measures to maintain and restore the diversity and capacity of ecosystems and human communities to withstand environmental disruption and degradation and to recover and adapt.” The UN Secretary-General recently issued a report entitled “Gaps in international environmental law and environment-related instruments: towards a global pact for the environment,” which the Member States (an ad hoc open-ended working group) will consider and discuss in 2019 with a view to making recommendations.

Intimately related to the principle of resilience is the doctrine of in dubio pro natura (when in doubt, favor Nature), which is the environmental analogue of the doctrine of in dubio pro reo (when in doubt, favor the accused), the foundation of the presumption of innocence in criminal law. Human norms do evolve, just as notions of trial by combat and trial by ordeal (throwing the accused in a body of water) have evolved to the rights of a defendant contained in Articles 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our norms regarding our relationship to Nature (or, in some cultures, Mother Earth) can, and indeed must, evolve.

The doctrine of in dubio pro natura, which flows logically from the precautionary principle (Rio Principle 15), can be a guide to decision-making (political, regulatory, administrative and judicial) when there are uncertainties in ascertaining impacts or making trade-offs between competing interests. In countries where the right to a healthy environment is recognized, it can be argued that resilience and resolving uncertainties in favor of the environment are necessary to the progressive realization of such right, and should be formally recognized. Resilience is also intertwined with environmental democracy and the activism of land and environmental defenders, including indigenous peoples, whose human rights must be protected. Regions, such as Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the Pacific etc., can recognize and implement resilience as a guiding principle through regional instruments and institutional arrangements.

Resilience is a fundamental characteristic of Nature — the integrity of natural systems naturally support resilience, and in an age of increasing disruption of the integrity of ecological and human systems, resilience serves as an ethical and legal principle that should be mainstreamed into the governance frameworks of human societies in order to guide holistic and integrated sustainable development.


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